White House Summit Draws Support for Studying, Preventing Concussions

AAFP Accepts Invitation to Attend, Share Efforts in This Area

June 02, 2014 05:30 pm Michael Laff Washington –

Even after suffering five concussions during his professional soccer career, Taylor Twellman continued making the physical sacrifice many top athletes routinely make when they take the field: He kept on playing.

Yet during a game he played as a member of the New England Revolution in 2008, the goalie from an opposing team punched him in the head. The injury had lasting effects and led to his eventual retirement from the sport in 2010. Subsequent effects from the injury were so severe that it limited his daily activities. He could not go to a movie theater. He was sensitive to bright lights. Oftentimes, all he wanted to do was simply sit in a dark room.

President Obama listens as Tori Belluci delivers introductory remarks during a White House summit on sports concussions. Belluci suffered several concussions while playing youth sports.

Twellman was just one of the athletes who shared his experiences dealing with a major concussion during the White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussions Summit(www.whitehouse.gov) on May 29. Also invited to the event were a number of representatives of medical specialty organizations, including AAFP President Reid Blackwelder, M.D., of Kingsport, Tenn.

Laying Out the Issue and Finding Solutions

Head injuries in sports have generated considerable media attention recently, especially concussions suffered by current and former professional football players. But it’s certainly not just professional athletes who are affected by concussion.

“Young people made nearly 250,000 emergency room visits with brain injuries from sports and recreation,” Obama said. “That number, obviously, doesn’t include kids who see their family doctor or, as is typical, don’t seek any medical help.”

Story Highlights
  • During a recent White House summit AAFP President Reid Blackwelder, M.D., attended, President Obama asked medical specialty organizations and academic institutions to make concussion injuries a priority.
  • Several sports and academic institutions pledged financial support to study the effects of concussions on individuals’ health.
  • Athletes who attended the summit shared their sports experiences, including concussions and other severe head injuries.

One purpose of the summit was to bring together some of the largest, most influential entities in sports and highlight their efforts to improve research and safety related to head injuries.

To that end, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Defense Department will devote $30 million to fund a comprehensive study of the impact of concussion injuries. In addition, the National Football League (NFL) is contributing $25 million over three years to promote youth sports safety, including a program that will expand access to athletic trainers in schools. Steve Tisch, owner of the New York Giants, pledged $10 million to launch a concussion study program at the University of California-Los Angeles that will focus on prevention and outreach efforts among youth. And NIH will research the long-term effects of repetitive concussions with $30 million in additional funding from the NFL.

For his part, Blackwelder welcomed the president’s acknowledgement of family physicians in his opening remarks. Family physicians are typically the first ones to see an injured patient, he said.

“I appreciate the president’s recognition of our role in the system,” Blackwelder told AAFP News. “We’re on the frontline. When you look at the other organizations that are involved, such as orthopedists and sports medicine specialists, they are not usually the physicians who see people with such injuries initially.”

The AAFP recommends that family physicians understand the risks associated with contact sports and advise parents about the best way to manage and minimize those risks. It’s important for parents to hear from their family physician that it’s healthy for their children to participate in sports, said Blackwelder, but it’s also important that any head injury be taken seriously.

“It’s an absolutely critical issue to address now,” he said. “As a health concern, it affects children and adults, not just athletes.”

In fact, four out of 10 AAFP members provide sports medicine services in their practice, according to a 2013 member survey.

“We can do more,” Blackwelder said. “We’re the only specialty that doesn’t limit ourselves in terms of age, gender, disease or body part. The danger is when the needed care becomes fragmented by diagnosis while the entire health picture of the patient is ignored in favor of treatment for a single problem.”

Staying Mindful of Injury Risks

Panelists who discussed the issue during the event encouraged children to continue playing sports but advised them and their parents to be mindful of the risks of greater injury if they ignore pain suffered during a sporting event.

Dawn Comstock, M.D., a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, participated in the discussion and shared some medical facts about head injuries, such as:

  • 90 percent of concussion victims report having a headache,
  • 80 percent of all concussions are resolved within a week and
  • only 5 percent of people who suffer a concussion actually lose consciousness.

Gen. Ray Ordinero, the U.S. Army chief of staff, noted that 200,000 soldiers reported some kind of traumatic brain injury, and 84 percent of those cases were not related to combat injuries. Both the military and sports share a culture that promotes pain tolerance as a sign of courage, Ordinero observed. “We institute a kind of mental toughness that discourages people from coming forward,” he said.

But that attitude has begun to change, Ordinero noted, and the military has been sharing information about its research on concussions with the NFL and has visited several cities with professional football teams to discuss the issue with players.

Despite the violence associated with playing professional football, former Washington Redskins player LaVar Arrington expressed no regrets about his career, which involved several serious injuries. He said he learned to tackle properly by tucking his head before making contact with an opposing player. He teaches the same technique to his own children, who also play football.

Even years after his own injury, Twellman has yet to fully recover, although he said the injury strengthened his determination to fight through other problems. “We need to make sure that recognition of concussions is spot on,” urged the former star, now a sports analyst for ESPN.

Pam Oliver, who served as moderator for the event, had her own brush with sports injuries when she was covering a football game as a sideline television reporter. An errant pass struck her in the face, and the shock of the impact left her unable to recall basic information during the game.

“By the fourth quarter, I didn’t know the difference between Justin Tuck (a football player) and Justin Bieber,” she said.